Entrepreneur

Rafie Chua: Ex-Banker Leaves Corporate World To Romance S'poreans With Customised Furniture

In 2013, Rafie Chua turned his back on banking to practise the art of traditional woodworking. He founded Plane and Bevel, a studio for handmade furniture that has become synonymous with uncompromising quality. Each piece is crafted with solid wood, without the use of any nails or screws — all in pursuit of “furniture that lasts generations”.

Tell us about your background. What did you study and what do you do for a living?

I grew up in Singapore and went to an all-boys primary school, then a neighbourhood secondary school till I was sixteen. Just before I was due to take my O-Level examinations, I was sent to Melbourne to study. Upon finishing high school, I returned to Singapore to enlist in National Service, like any good Singaporean son. Then, I was back in Melbourne studying for a Bachelor of Commerce degree at the University of Melbourne. With majors in Finance and Accounting, I did some work at a bank, trading credit investments. That didn’t last very long.

Today, I’m a craftsman. I build things for a living.

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How hard was it to give up a stable career in banking?

I wouldn’t call trading bonds in any bank stable. Like most jobs, it was somewhat secure in the sense that you received a paycheck at the end of the month. Careers in the corporate world involve key performance and productivity indicators. They have to be met to remain competitive.

I think it was easy for me because I’d travelled to many countries, experienced different cultures, and had conversations with people coming from different perspectives. Through these experiences, I’ve come to the realisation that the world is such a big place. There’s a place for everyone to do their own thing. Leaving banking was easy. It was starting my own gig that took courage.

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Was woodworking a part of your life from an early age?

Woodworking runs in my family. My late grandfather was a boat maker in the fifties — he had a workshop along the old Kallang River. As a teenager, my father would help him out at the workshop. He went on to do some carpentry work on his own, although he never did it as a business. By being around him and helping him with furniture-making for our house, the skills must have rubbed off on me over the years.

Was there a moment when you realised there was bigger opportunity in this?

When I started Plane and Bevel, I didn’t really think about whether it would be a sustainable business. I just knew that I enjoyed making furniture and maybe, I could make it into a small business. I wanted to see how far it could go and what it would become.

I posted my work on Instagram and people seemed to either like my work, or the idea of what I was trying to achieve. I’ve met many people along the way, and they’ve given me opportunities and support.

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Who has influenced your work?

Sam Maloof. He was an American furniture designer and woodworker. I remember the first time I saw a rocking chair that he had crafted — I was in complete awe of its beauty and quality. Another woodworker I admire is George Nakashima. What appeals to me is the way they used simple, clean lines and honest materials to create products that fulfil their function. At the same time, their products are works of art.

I use them as inspiration all the time. I’m just trying my best, of course; they are masters of their craft and I’m just starting out. There’s a lot to learn from everyone, so I take in as much as I can. For me, it’s about the pursuit of perfection. That’s a journey that will last a lifetime.

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Can you tell us more about Plane and Bevel?

I founded Plane and Bevel in early 2013, in response to requests for custom-made furniture. I still do custom projects today, for residential and commercial clients.

I intend to shift my focus towards establishing a line of furniture products that’s designed and handmade in my workshop. I think it’s a very romantic idea to make furniture locally and offer them to Singaporeans. I’m convinced people will love the idea, but I’m still figuring out if people are willing to buy my products. It has to be sustainable as a small business. I’m working with a friend on an online shop, so that people can buy my pre-made products.

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What makes Plane and Bevel different?

Plane and Bevel works primarily with solid wood, not plywood. Solid wood stands the test of time. If you want furniture that lasts generations, there’s no question that they should be made of solid wood.

I’m also working without hardware, like nails and screws. In the old days of furniture making, joining wood without the aid of hardware was not an option. So, skilled craftsmen came up with compression joints to hold wood together. Again, the advantage is furniture that lasts longer, because hardware that’s not of exceptional quality tend to fail over time. I also think that wood joints are much more aesthetically pleasing than screws.

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Describe your design process.

I usually begin with a rough design in my head. The build process would take a few weeks; during that time, I’d design the finer details as I go along. Because of the way I prefer to work, I’d have back-and-forth conversations with my clients until the job is done. When I’m designing, I like to keep the design simple, with clean lines. The finer details express the build quality, and quality speaks for itself.

What do you think of furniture design in Singapore?

I don’t know enough designer-makers to make a holistic and fair comment. I do know that Plane and Bevel will always remain a small studio practice. In a world where consumerism is commonplace, I’d like to provide an experience that’s different from a retail store. You get to meet the maker and have conversations about the piece you want. That piece will occupy a space in your home, and it’ll have a story. It’s a story about how you took the time to pick every detail, and have a local maker craft it for you. I think that’s really important.

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What has been your biggest learning in your business?

Keep trying, because every mistake gets you closer to where you want to be.

What does a typical day look like for you?

My day starts at 8-9 a.m., since I’m not a morning person. I’ll have a coffee for breakfast, then it’s a ten minute bicycle ride to the studio. I’ll begin work on any custom project that needs to be done, and there can be multiple projects going on at the same time.

Currently, I’m fortunate to have the help of Colin, a Product Design graduate from Perth. He’s a breath of fresh air — without him, I wouldn’t be able to take on multiple jobs. I also have help from my dear friend Lyn, who has a design background as well. She’s the authority on aesthetics in the studio.

My days are rarely the same. I could be heading out to buy materials, meeting clients, working on-site, or trying a different place for lunch. I try to finish by 6-7 p.m., when possible. I’d head home for dinner with my family and try to squeeze in time to write invoices, draft quotations or get product designs out of my head and onto paper.

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What are your passions outside of woodworking?

I used to travel alone, frequently. I’d backpack without a goal in mind, because I couldn’t be bothered to plan an itinerary. Once, I was backpacking in Portugal and decided to head to Morocco on a whim. I ended up on a bus to Spain, crossed into Africa on a ferry during a storm, and woke up to breakfast in a stranger’s mud house. I like the uncertainty that travelling offers. You never know who you’ll meet, the conversations you’ll have, or the wisdom you’ll receive. Unfortunately, time isn’t as kind to me as it was before. Maybe in a few years, I’ll have more time for my other passions.

If you could go back in time and do one thing differently, what would it be?

Absolutely nothing. I believe everyone is who they are today as a result of what they have done, or not done in the past. I’m a combination of all the lessons I’ve learnt, from my successes and mistakes. I like who I am and what I’ve become today. I’d only focus on doing things better than I did in the past.

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What are your dreams and plans for the future?

To do the things that make me happy, and to be paid sufficiently for my efforts — in compliments or with money. And in good time, to find a partner, fall in love, and love hopelessly till the day I die.

Philosophy you live by:

Work hard, be humble.

We all have the powerful ability to adapt and learn. When I encounter a problem in the studio or in life, I like to get different perspectives — to see if others have a better way of doing things. I’ll use the information I get to solve the problem.

It’s about not having an ego: accepting that you don’t know very much, and letting others teach you. If you think you know everything and there’s nothing anyone can teach you — well, you might as well be dead.

This article was first published on Create to Inspire, a digital magazine by Ubersnap that features interviews about creativity and courage, with the best creators in Singapore. The original post can be read here.

 

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